Ones to Watch 2021: Rehab Eldalil

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 450 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing profiles of the 20 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct with an 1854 Subscription

Tracing her own Bedouin ancestry, Eldalil documented the daily lives of Egypt’s nomad community

“I was part of the 2011 Egyptian revolution; I saw first-hand the impact of visual storytelling, how we document history, and how it’s erased,” recalls Rehab Eldalil. At the time, she was studying for a BA in photography at Helwan University in Greater Cairo. “After that I began using photography to dig into my ancestry – trying to make a connection,” she says. For Eldalil, to document has become an act of remembering.

© Rehab Eldalil.

The Sinai Peninsula, a sparsely populated desert region between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, is a significant place for the photographer; it is where her ancestors once lived. More recently, her father fought in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Then, once the Israeli occupation of Egyptian Sinai lands ended in 1982, he was stationed as a military engineer there, tasked with removing any remaining weapons, such as landmines. Eldalil was born in Cairo, but as a child she often visited the region. Despite this, “my father rarely spoke about our Sinai ancestry, and it became a family joke,” she says. “We had so much history and trauma from our Bedouin and Palestinian lineage that nobody wanted to talk about it.”

© Rehab Eldalil.

The Bedouin people are indigenous to the peninsula, and live nomadic lives across the Middle Eastern deserts. Hoping to retrace her history, Eldalil returned to the region. After seven years of research, she began The Longing of the Stranger Whose Path Has Been Broken (2018). “I connected to the community and slowly the project became a collaboration,” she says. Eldalil was still shooting in South Sinai the same year she began a photography MA at Falmouth University. “With documentary, there are always issues with agency and representation, especially with indigenous communities – I wanted the Bedouin to have control over their voice,” she says. “Eventually my search for belonging became a far wider piece about the universal process of seeking a home, and the interconnectedness between people and land. It is their story as much as it is mine.”

© Rehab Eldalil.

Bedouin art, language and archival imagery are all incorporated into the series. “Poetry is used daily; to flirt, tell stories and to express yourself,” she explains of Bedouin custom. Some men inscribed their thoughts and stories over Eldalil’s images. “Many of the women didn’t want to be photographed,” she says. “So we printed the portraits on fabric, over which they could then embroider.” Embroidery is a traditional practice for the Bedouin women. “It’s not about hiding anything, it’s about having control over your image,” Eldalil continues.

While Eldalil was working on her initial project, some Bedouin elders were looking to produce a document to help educate younger generations about their traditions and customs. Together, they worked on Eldalil’s second collaborative project with the community: a field guide. “The guide touches upon the community’s interconnectedness with the land,” she says. “The tribe elders wrote a database of native plants and their uses.” Eldalil recalls one man using the guide with his son, helping the boy identify flower species and routes on the map. 

© Rehab Eldalil.

Peggy Sue Amison, the artistic director of East Wing gallery in Doha, who nominated Eldalil, describes her photography as: “A whole new level of interaction. [Eldalil] assists in building a legacy for the Bedouin people – her multidimensional approach touches both viewers and subjects in unforgettable ways.” 

© Rehab Eldalil.

Eldalil, who has also spent time working with NGOs, including Unicef, has not been able to uncover her personal links to the Bedouin tribes, but says she has “let go of that. I have embraced that I might always be in some way a stranger,” she continues. “But that has helped me to realise this isn’t just my story – it’s a story about this community and their identity.”

© Rehab Eldalil.
Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.